Director Randal Kleiser Kicks Off Virtual Reality Narrative Short 'Defrost'

Randal Kleiser - S 2015
AP Images

Randal Kleiser - S 2015

Virtual reality stakeholders continue to search for the killer apps for an emerging 360-degree immersive platform. Video games are considered a given, and there’s been experimentation in areas including movie marketing.

We haven’t yet see a lot of live action narrative filmmaking, but Monday evening I attended a party to celebrate the launch of Defrost — an inventive new four-minute narrative VR short, written and directed by Randal Kleiser (Grease, The Blue Lagoon), that's envisioned as the pilot for a VR series.

A technically-savvy director, Kleiser was excited to experiment with the format. In the story, told in the first-person, the viewer "plays" Joan Garrison, who awakens after being cryogenically frozen for 30 years. As the story begins, Joan's in a wheelchair, being led down a hospital hall as the doctor (Carl Weathers) explains to you what has happened, given you the sense of disorientation that “Joan” would feel. You then meet your family, and one by one they reintroduce themselves. It ends with the doctor asking if you’d like to see what you look like, and holds a mirror up to you (the camera) for the reveal.

“It’s a first person experience and you can make the viewer a character,” Kleiser told The Hollywood Reporter of his impression of the new medium. “I came up with the idea of the wheelchair ... as well as making her speech not possible due to the defrosting process. [This is because in VR] you couldn't talk to the characters, but they could talk to you."

To film the short — which is one uninterrupted take — a dummy of Joan’s body was placed in a wheelchair, with a 360-degree virtual reality camera in the position of her head (therefore you look down and see “your” body).

Kleiser himself appears as the hospital employee pushing the wheelchair, which effectively allowed him to serve as camera operator while directing. “I did it so I could watch what the actors were doing, as a director you can’t watch what’s happening because the camera’s in all directions (meaning the director would appear in the shot).”

The cast of family members incudes Christopher AtkinsBruce Davidson, Tanna Frederick and Ethan Rains -- all of whom had their first experience acting in a VR production. “We are so trained to be able to get a ‘take two’ on a close up, but there was none of that. It was one take, and it was all of us, all at once,” Atkins (who starred in Kleiser's The Blue Lagoon) said, noting that it was like live theater.

Defrost’s production company is VR firm IM360, a joint venture between VFX house Digital Domain and VR technology developer Immersive Media. IM360 also provided its 360-degree VR camera system for the production.

After viewing the final short, Atkins said, “It was a lot more interesting than I expected. I was captivated by everyone talking and having [a character’s] point of view was really interesting."

During the party, guests viewed the short on Samsung VR Gear head sets, one of the first models to become available to consumers. In 2016, more are expected to follow, including the Oculus Rift. “Next year [early adopters] won’t have much to look at, so why not do a series,” Kleiser said of the idea behind Defrost. “When people have these [head sets] I think they will download content much like they do Netflix. At the moment, it’s hard to watch for a long time, but in units of 4-5 minutes, it’s great. [For a series] you can binge watch, or take a break between episodes.”

IM360 has started an online library of VR content, and Defrost, at least initially, is available exclusively on this site.